Jonathan Freirich
Listener, learner, thinker - leading to better actions.

Can Curiosity Cure Division?

Polarization, incivility, societal division – pick your poison and there is plenty to go around.

About a month ago, I posted this on Facebook, thinking it innocuous:

“The degree to which a person can grow is directly proportional to the amount of truth they can accept about themself without running away.” (Leland Val Van De Wall[1])

One of my very well educated, smart, bantering friends, a fellow alumnus from Stuyvesant High School responded and another one of us chimed in, leading to the following dialogue:

G: Agreed! Your god is a myth.

Me: G, I am not sure you have asked me about “my God” thoroughly enough to make that statement with such authority.

E: Jonathan, I like your construct. It means that any statement that I or anyone would attempt to make about “your God” is at best a statement about what *I* think your belief is.

Me: E, thanks. Having dealt with snarky smart people like G before, and this being my professional field, I do endeavor to choose my words with care.

E: The smart person may be sure your position is wrong. But the truly smart person will admit that they cannot fully know what your position is.

Thank you to my two friends for allowing me to share this and for their wit and wisdom to be showcased here.

E offered us some real wisdom in this conversation.

First, it seems people will jump at the opportunity to criticize stances on religion that they deem irrational. I believe that G likes to challenge me in this way because we went to a science and math high school and I made the unusual choice to follow an apparently “irrationally religious” career – namely, being a rabbi. In this, G aligns well with my grandfather, Jerry Freirich, (of blessed memory[2]). Jerry responded to my entry into rabbinical school by demanding that I defend all the nonsensical things taught in Jewish holy books, particularly the Hebrew Bible. I stopped this conversation quickly, since nothing Jerry accused the Bible of saying was in fact in the text. Jerry’s argument was not with me, but with his idea of religious irrationality projected onto all people claiming to be religious.

In a similar way, G likes to cast aspersions on the stereotype of what a religious person thinks, as opposed to finding out what I think. E pointed out that my response to such an outside description of my inner thinking says more about G’s opinions than mine. G seems to think all religion is irrational, based in myth. There is a much more interesting and less polarizing conversation out there, were G to ask me what I thought of the divine as opposed to assuming I believed in something that he thought was stupidly mythological.

(For my thoughts on helpful and unhelpful religion and theology, please read this other blog post I wrote: )

Then E noted something about the nature of insightful people from all backgrounds and fields – that accepting the bounds of what we know is the key to intelligent inquiry and conversation. Being sure of ourselves is a good way to shut down a conversation. Good discussions are fueled by curiosity.

When advising our kids in the face of social challenges – especially how to make friends in new situations – Ginny, my spouse, and I often say, “Be interested instead of trying to be interesting”. We make real connections by expressing curiosity in, and then listening to, the people we hope to make friends with.

I admit, I have strayed from this path all too often. Trying to be impressive and interesting and get people’s attention in a good way has been a pitfall into which I have regularly fallen as one of those “educated, smart, bantering” people I mentioned above. I am a “know-it-all” working on recovery. Seems like being curious is something of an antidote to that.

As a trained and experienced facilitator of multi-ethnic and multi-faith constructive conversations I have seen how helpful some ground rules can be for successful discussions – in many of these settings we use “touchstones” that come out of the Center for Courage & Renewal. A cherished colleague, Rev. Ann Tillman, just the other day mentioned this one:

When things get difficult, turn to wonder: If we find ourselves disagreeing with one another, becoming judgmental, shutting down in defense, try turning to wonder: “I wonder what brought her to this place?”  “I wonder what my reaction teaches me?” “I wonder what he’s feeling right now?”

And I wonder if this might be a good general rule.

Right now, in this moment for the world, things are difficult.

Can we all start with wonder with each other?

Can we muster the presence, and it takes some energy to do this, to be curious?

Can we enter conversations with one another thinking, “what learning adventure might I find with this person,” instead of the old tired, “how can I impress this person?”

I wonder how many bridges we might build.


Source mentioned:

Tucker, E. (2024). Courage & renewal touchstones for creating trustworthy space. Center for Courage & Renewal.

[1] After some searching, this quote seems in fact to belong to Leland Val Van De Wall, although not much about the person himself.

[2] Many Jewish people follow up the names of the deceased with phrases like, “may their memory be for a blessing”, a direct translation of the Hebrew “zikaron l’vracha” – there are several different formulae – I chose “of blessed memory” because of its relative ease in English.

About the Author
Rabbi Jonathan Freirich, a Reconstructionist and Reform rabbi, with training in public policy and community organizing, originally from New York City, now coalition-builds, facilitates, listens, learns, and writes in Buffalo, New York. Dedicated to compassion and cooperation, thoughtfulness and thinking, and effective collaborative actions, Jonathan aims to contribute to a better connected, more peaceful, and more sustainable world.
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